Melancholy and the Romantic Movement

First Edition of Gray’s “Elegy”

How did the concept of melancholy came to be seen as especially associated with Romanticism and creativity in the arts?

In the 18th century, the concept of sensibility—a refined feeling of emotion and delicacy of perception—was synonymous with social refinement and good breeding. However, it was soon recognised that there was a fine line between a good supply of delicate feeling and various forms of mental disarrangement. The Romantics’ emphasis on “sentiment” demanded reflection on the tragic aspects of human life; an awareness which, if prolonged, could itself lead to feelings of gloom and depression.

The melancholic was seen as brooding and restless; fearful of the future and pessimistic about the possibility of improvement. She may also see life as essentially hollow and devoid of purpose. And, in the melancholic’s constant longing for something inexpressible and unattainable, many would find the seeds of that creative yearning generally associated with great artists of every kind.

Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might.
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.


Melancholy became almost an inevitable by-product of the romantic outlook, with its emphasis on extremes of emotion. ‘The Sublime’ in landscape, for example, was often associated with places that were dangerous, like mountain gorges, or productive of solitude. Romantic love comes tightly yoked to the pains of love rejected or lost. Violent sensitivity can produce negative emotions as easily as positive ones. Indeed, as idealists and visionaries—at least in their own eyes—romantics were condemned to the loneliness produced by the solitude of their position. They saw the world as out of step with them; the world saw exactly the opposite. Death alone could free them from a life in which sorrow and loss were constant themes.

Romantic melancholy seems to stem, in part, from the attempt to find some correspondence between reality and the kind of idealised life the romantics espoused. They felt joy in those fleeting moments when their vision seemed to be within their grasp,  but despondency and despair when it was born in upon them that what they sought was impossible to maintain. The radical political beliefs of some, coupled with their turbulent characters,  meant they felt fundamentally at odds with the society of the day. Unable or unwilling to adjust themselves to society’s norms, they expressed their feelings of frustration in melancholy.

The Melancholy Genius

The eighteenth-century upper classes in England prided themselves on their refined tastes and artistic sensibility. It was to refine and educate such taste that they undertook “The Grand Tour” of Italy and other European nations deemed to possess a greater degree of artistic outlooks and achievement that dull, old, foggy England. There was also the possibility of indulging in life-styles and practices abroad that would cause scandal at home.

Horace Walpole is perhaps a good example of this type of melancholy. He was intensely self-centred and more than a little conceited about the refinement of his taste. He was also given to periods of ‘nervous disorder’. Were these brought on by his exquisite artistic sensibility? Were they due to being a secresly homosexual man who could not exercise his sexual preference openly in the high society of the time? Or were they yet more examples of his self-absorption and the lack of any significant outlet for his prodigious talents? Maybe it was all of these — or none of them. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Dr Samuel Johnson suffered from melancholy for almost all of his life and believed he had inherited the condition. In 1773, on their tour of Scotland, Boswell reports Johnson saying:

I inherited a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober.

Dr Johnson often described his melancholy as madness, even when he associated it with aspects of his body rather than his mind. In his diary for 30th March, 1777, he wrote, “I discover nothing but a barren waste of time with some disorders of body, and disturbances of the mind very near to madness.” We can see he was describing depression, but no distinction was made at the time between a general sense of artistic ennui and full-blown clinical depression.

Boswell preferred to call melancholy “hypochondria”, applying it both to himself and to Johnson. “Spleen” would have been used by some to describe the same condition. In his Dictionary, Dr Johnson defined “hypochondriacal” as “Melancholy; disordered in the imagination”.

To consider just some of those well-known people who suffered from “melancholy” under one or more of the labels of the time is to produce a listing of 18th-century artistic and philosophical achievement: John Bunyan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Thomas Gray, Robert Burns, George Romney, Oliver Goldsmith, David Hume, and Joseph Wright – and so on.

Depressive states seem to hold a fascination for the creative imagination, with melancholy exerting a particular appeal in the eighteenth century. Perhaps Aristotle explains it best. He claimed that showing a tragic view of the human condition on stage had a cathartic effect, as well as revealing just how little separated us from those arbitrarily chosen by fate to experience suffering. To produce a strong emotional response inspire in your audience thus came to be seen as the principal measure of artistic success.

There is also the element of reflection common amongst melancholics: that contemplation of their past which might, amongst the religious, result in repentance and renewal, but amongst those with a more scientific and rational outlook tended to lead to disillusionment with life in general. Several poets of the 18th century produced works characterised by gloomy meditations on death. Examples include Thomas Gray, writer of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, Thomas Parnell, who wrote “Night-Piece on Death”, Robert Blair and Edward Young. The religious culture of the eighteenth century produced an emphasis on private devotion and reflection. That too could encourage melancholy ideas about the pointlessness of life in the face of inevitable death and dissolution.

The final instalment in this series will look at the notion, proposed at the time, that melancholy was especially associated with the rich; rather like the various multiply initialled ‘syndromes’ linked to today’s top media personalities.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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